Once an author finishes a novel, the book is done, right? Wrong. Even though the bulk of the copy is complete, there are still a few additional touches before the book is finalized. In a previous post, we talked about how a title tag is similar to the cover of a book, and how it is essential for catching the user’s eye. But that is not the only variable that helps a reader choose one book over another. There is usually a block of copy on the back or inside cover that provides a short description of what’s inside. In book terms, it is called a blurb. But on the web, it’s called a meta description.
What is a Meta Description?
A meta description is a hidden bit of code that briefly summarizes the contents of a webpage. It doesn’t appear on a page itself, but shows up in front of users in the search results, underneath the title tag.
On a website, you can locate a page’s meta description by right-clicking and selecting “inspect” to view the meta description in HTML format.
Besides the brief appearance in the search results, if the meta description doesn’t show up anywhere else on the website’s page, what makes a meta description important?
Why Do Meta Descriptions Matter?
There has been a bit of controversy over whether meta descriptions do or do not affect SEO rankings. The short answer is, although title tags pull a heavyweight when it comes to ranking in Google SERPs, meta tags do not. It’s true; meta tags don’t matter to Google. However, meta tags do matter to people. Meta descriptions play a crucial role in CTR, which can help page ranking in the long run.
The title tag may make the first impression on a user, but the meta tag helps users decide which result to pursue between hundreds of similar pages. Meta descriptions tell users what a page is about, and provide a sneak peek of the content, value, and user experience.
Crafting a quality meta tag can give your visitors an accurate understanding of what to expect before visiting your page so they can choose the option that will best meet their needs.
Even if your page’s content is perfect, no one will decide to explore it if your meta tag deters them. A meta tag is a direct reflection of the customer service they will receive on your webpage. If it comes across as rude, unnatural, or unhelpful, chances are that they will assume your website will match, and choose a different option.
Meta Description Best Practices
When it comes to writing a meta description, several rules of thumb have been shown to successfully impact CTR. But at the end of the day, it is about doing what makes sense for your business, brand, goals, and users. The following best practices and examples can help you craft the best meta description for your page. The only end-all-be-all rule is the character length.
The ideal length for a meta description is between 150-160 characters. It should be descriptive enough to highlight the main points within this character limit. The best way to check that your meta description fits within that character limit is with a SERP preview tool. This way, you can preview exactly how your meta tag will look in search results. Of course, you can go over the allotted characters, but once you hit 160, the text will be cut off and replaced with ellipses.
The two examples that follow are both results for “Portent” as a query, and both offer a definition. The only main difference between the two is that you can get the complete summary for Wiktionary, but not Wikipedia.
Although you could argue that the ellipses may make people want to read more, it will often deter people from investigating and lead them directly into a competitor’s site.
Write for People, Not Google
Now that we know Google doesn’t care about our meta descriptions, we can throw the keyword-stuffed-robotic copy and SEO rules out the window and focus on the important thing: the user.
When it comes to meta descriptions, it is essential to offer a complete and descriptive summary at first glance and welcome users into your site. It is also a chance to connect with the user on an individual level. Since the meta description is geared toward the user, don’t be afraid to make it conversational. Find ways to incorporate your brand’s personality and voice within the meta description. Here is a great example of how WIRED informs and intrigues users with their witty sense of humor within their meta description.
Make Your Meta Description Unique to Every Page
On a website, no two pages are identical, so it is important to make sure none of your meta descriptions are identical. It is best to avoid duplicate meta descriptions and write unique ones for each page to determine which page to visit.
The following image shows two of the meta descriptions for the query “Portent Seattle,” one is for the “contact” page and one for our “services” page.
Although the results are both for the same website, portent.com, the meta descriptions show you that clicking on one will lead you to a “contact us” page, where the other will educate you on the services we provide.
Ensuring each meta description is unique for each page within a site will limit the bounce rate on a page from users being misled by the meta description. Most people will hit the back button before attempting to dig around on a site to find the information they were looking for.
Make It Promotional
We now know that the meta description is valuable to the user, that it must reflect the content of a page, and be eye-catching without being spammy, all while staying at 160 characters or less. While some brands use this area to describe the content of a page, others see the meta description as real estate for promotional use. Here are a few ways to promote your content within your meta description.
Use this space to highlight free quotes, special offers, or current promotions. Starbucks highlights the BOGO deal and provides the hours the deal is available so that all of the necessary information is in one place. Starbucks probably values a high rank and CTR, but they don’t necessarily need people to explore their website. They know that the most significant conversion is getting people in the door directly from a search.
Build Brand Awareness
Another way to use this space is to build and maintain brand awareness. Allstate uses its slogan in their meta description to connect with the user. Since the title tag explains the bulk of what the page will offer, Allstate uses their meta description to sound friendly, inviting, protected, and familiar.
As you know, each brand has multiple competitors that offer similar products or services, and it can be challenging to differentiate from them in the SERPs. Geico uses its meta description to build credibility and trust.
CTR is a key motive for writing a great meta description, but like Starbucks, many brands are more interested in gaining conversions than page visitors. Best Plumbing provides contact information directly in their meta tag so users can contact them without visiting the site. Oh, and they also use the promotion and credibility tactic.
Communicate Key Messages
Nordstrom could have gone with any of the above approaches for their meta description usage. They could offer their store location, contact information, or credibility statement. However, Nordstrom knows what is important to their customers, and uses their meta description to answer frequently asked questions in the retail world that often take some digging to find. Nordstrom states their free shipping and returns policy upfront in their meta description to appeal to both new and long-term customers.
Similar to picking your next book to read, it can be hard to choose which website will give you the information, value, and experience you set out to find. That’s where meta descriptions come in. And while there is no perfect way to write a meta description, and it can vary depending on each business, these examples and best practices can inspire you to craft meta descriptions that will increase traffic and convert users.
- Be descriptive
- Use your meta description to promote your content
- Make the most out of your allotted characters
- Write for people, not Google